Slippery Slopes: A Specious Anti-Boycott Argument

[this article originally appeared as part of an “emergent conversation” on the boycott at PoLAR: The Political and Legal Anthropology Review online]

by Karen Brodkin

67834_brdkn_thmbOn its face, the anti-boycott statement that some anthropologists received via email in February, a version of which is here, argues that there is a slippery slope from a boycott by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) of Israeli institutions to hardship, discrimination and “guilt by association” against individual Israeli and US anthropologists; that boycotting an institution necessarily impacts its members:

[This is] a resolution to boycott all Israeli academic institutions, shun their representatives and isolate their scholars and students (including Israeli anthropologists) by boycotting their academic institutions.

This suggests that a boycott of Israeli academic institutions necessarily stigmatizes all members of those institutions, by accusing them (and US scholars who work with them) of guilt by association. Is this the case?

Anything but.

The anti-boycott statement quotes suggestions for specific actions that the AAA leadership could decide to take vis-à-vis Israeli academic institutions if the membership passes this resolution (from the Appendix to the proposed pro-boycott resolution). It does not mention the rest of that Appendix or the text in the resolution that ensures the rights of individual US and Israeli scholars to interact in whatever ways they choose.

The most common objection to the boycott among those I have talked with is that it would effectively prevent Israeli scholars from travel and collaboration not least because they lack the funding of their tenure track American counterparts. They would be welcome here; however, without their government’s or institutions’ funding they couldn’t travel. The resolution’s Appendix nullifies this argument, though:

[Israeli scholars can] participate in AAA meetings, use funds from their institutions [my emphasis] to attend meetings, publish in AAA journals, and take part in other AAA activities in their individual capacities. Individual AAA members from Israel would still have access to Anthrosource through their personal membership.

Permanent residents of Israel qualify for AAA membership at the rate for “Less Developed Countries,” which is $US 30 per year. This is the same rate that applies to Palestinians in Israel/Palestine as well as in the broader Middle East/North Africa region.

I think the anthropological version of the academic boycott does an exemplary job of distinguishing the rights and freedoms of individual academics from the withdrawal of the AAA’s relationships with Israeli institutions.

I want also to address what I see as a disturbing subtext to the anti-boycott position. It emerges when we ask what kind of harm its opponents think the boycott would create and for whom:

[Boycott proposals] create feelings of distrust and hostility based on ethnicity and national origin towards individual members of the AAA, and make it difficult for those who disagree with the political analysis in question to feel at home in their own academic association.… there will be an increase in egregious instances of personal targeting of anthropologists on the basis of their political views and ethnic and national identities throughout the profession, with little or no accountability.

We believe that once an ethos of discrimination against Israeli academic institutions is officially endorsed the distinction between Jewish Israeli academics and their Israeli academic homes will be easily elided

Whatever your political views on the Israeli and Palestinian conflict a boycott targeting the academic homes of our colleagues and peers in another country and unjustly accusing them of guilt by association will not solve the problem.

First, when it comes to Israel/Palestine, scholarly exchange in the United States is hardly free flowing and is already heavily freighted with passionate politics. The anti-boycott statement refers to one case where an Israeli scholar was denied a sabbatical appointment. On the other side, I know a case close to home where the top candidate for an academic position was rejected because of their political views on Israel and in support of Palestinian rights. I have also had a personal experience when one of my promotion reviews was seriously held up because of my views on Jews, race and Israeli politics.

Given this freighted context, here is what I see as the subtext’s slippery slope: Is the objection to a boycott about opposing political positions about Israel/Palestine, or is it about ethnic and national targeting? What defines the folks likely to be harmed?

If it’s about national/ethnic targeting, there is a moral basis to the anti-boycott position (that is, it shouldn’t happen). But is ethnicity the same as nationality—is Palestine a nation and Palestinians a nationality? Are Jews an ethnicity? Are boycott opponents concerned about harm to American and Israeli anthropologists (by nationality, regardless of ethnicity) who favor the boycott as well as those who oppose it? Are they concerned about harm to Palestinians and Jews of any country (by ethnicity) who support the boycott as well as those who oppose it?

Just who are the ethnicities the anti-boycott statement believes will be targeted? It seems to be Jewish academics in Israel and the United States, provided that they support Israel or oppose the boycott. It is not clear whether they also include pro-Israel scholars regardless of ethnicity or nationality.

However, neither Palestinian scholars in Israel/Palestine, nor US scholars of any ethnicity in the United States – including Jewish American scholars – who support the boycott seem to be included as among those the resolution might harm. Nevertheless significant numbers of these individuals have already been demonstrably harmed. The statement’s ambiguity and vagueness on these counts does not acknowledge the ongoing pattern of institutional discrimination and harm to Palestinian scholars in Israel/Palestine; nor does it see extant harm to pro-Palestinian scholars of any ethnicity in both countries. See the AAA’s own Task Force Report on the issue, which documents this pattern and harm.

The anti-boycott statement also does not acknowledge harm done by American and Israeli scholars who support Israeli governmental politics to those who oppose them. All these issues of harm and discrimination are ongoing and precede the existence of any institutional boycott.

If opposition to the boycott is really about the politics of Israel and US-Israel relations, then vague claims of discrimination and harm based on ethnicity or nationality are disingenuous. There is real harm, and real discrimination, but the brunt of it seems to be borne by a mix of ethnicities and nationalities that share only opposition to the politics of Israel toward Palestinians.

Opposing the boycott is not about protecting scholars from harm or discrimination based on ethnicity or nationality. It is about protecting a political position of Israel over Palestine from challenge. As the boycott resolution’s Appendix clearly states:

The boycott does not preclude communication and collaboration with individual Israeli scholars. Indeed, one of its goals is to encourage dialogue about human and academic rights in Israel/Palestine grounded in a set of shared principles of justice.

I would argue that one of the goals of boycott opponents is to discourage such dialogue, grounded in principles of justice, rather than diversion.

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